[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones (NY Times)

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Fri Oct 5 12:54:24 EDT 2007

Related to our recent discussion on the Department of Defense's recruitment 
and the Network of Concerned anthropologists, I'm forwarding a NY Times 
article, published today, which was posted to SEA-L.   - AJ


October 5, 2007
Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan - In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern 
Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial 
new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian 
anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a 
member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program 
that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat 
units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team's ability to understand subtle 
points of tribal relations - in one case spotting a land dispute that 
allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe - has won the praise of 
officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working 
with the anthropologists here, said that the unit's combat operations had 
been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and 
that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health 
care and education for the population.

"We're looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist's 
perspective," he said. "We're not focused on the enemy. We're focused on 
bringing governance down to the people."

In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million 
expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and 
social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and 
Afghanistan. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the 
Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.

Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social 
sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin 
America, some denounce the program as "mercenary anthropology" that exploits 
social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their 
intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause 
all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American 

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 
other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for 
anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

"While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure 
world," the pledge says, "at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of 
occupation which has entailed massive casualties."

In Afghanistan, the anthropologists arrived along with 6,000 troops, which 
doubled the American military's strength in the area it patrols, the country's 

A smaller version of the Bush administration's troop increase in Iraq, the 
buildup in Afghanistan has allowed American units to carry out the 
counterinsurgency strategy here, where American forces generally face less 
resistance and are better able to take risks.

A New Mantra

Since Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the overall American commander in Iraq, 
oversaw the drafting of the Army's new counterinsurgency manual last year, 
the strategy has become the new mantra of the military. A recent American 
military operation here offered a window into how efforts to apply the new 
approach are playing out on the ground in counterintuitive ways.

In interviews, American officers lavishly praised the anthropology program, 
saying that the scientists' advice has proved to be "brilliant," helping 
them see the situation from an Afghan perspective and allowing them to cut 
back on combat operations.

The aim, they say, is to improve the performance of local government 
officials, persuade tribesmen to join the police, ease poverty and protect 
villagers from the Taliban and criminals.

Afghans and Western civilian officials, too, praised the anthropologists and 
the new American military approach but were cautious about predicting 
long-term success. Many of the economic and political problems fueling 
instability can be solved only by large numbers of Afghan and American 
civilian experts.

"My feeling is that the military are going through an enormous change right 
now where they recognize they won't succeed militarily," said Tom Gregg, the 
chief United Nations official in southeastern Afghanistan. "But they don't 
yet have the skill sets to implement" a coherent nonmilitary strategy, he 

Deploying small groups of soldiers into remote areas, Colonel Schweitzer's 
paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to resolve tribal disputes 
that have simmered for decades. Officers shrugged off questions about 
whether the military was comfortable with what David Kilcullen, an 
Australian anthropologist and an architect of the new strategy, calls "armed 
social work."

"Who else is going to do it?" asked Lt. Col. David Woods, commander of the 
Fourth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "You have to evolve. Otherwise you're 

The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the military 
called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this summer in which 
500 Afghan and 500 American soldiers tried to clear an estimated 200 to 250 
Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province, secure southeastern 
Afghanistan's most important road and halt a string of suicide attacks on 
American troops and local governors.

In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an 
unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods said. 
Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to provide for 
their families, she determined, a burden that could drive the young men to 
join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy's advice, American officers 
developed a job training program for the widows.

In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a local 
tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the Taliban's goal, 
she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern 
Afghanistan's most powerful tribes. If Afghan and American officials could 
unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating 
in the area.

"Call it what you want, it works," said Colonel Woods, a native of Denbo, 
Pa. "It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms."

Embedding Scholars

The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003, when 
American officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information 
about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate, 
a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the Navy who advocated 
using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

Ms. McFate helped develop a database in 2005 that provided officers with 
detailed information on the local population. The next year, Steve 
Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and 
advocated embedding social scientists with American combat units.
Ms. McFate, the program's senior social science adviser and an author of the 
new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with 
the military. "I'm frequently accused of militarizing anthropology," she 
said. "But we're really anthropologizing the military."

Roberto J. González, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University, 
called participants in the program naïve and unethical. He said that the 
military and the Central Intelligence Agency had consistently misused 
anthropology in counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns and that military 
contractors were now hiring anthropologists for their local expertise as 

"Those serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence 
agencies and contractors," he wrote in the June issue of Anthropology Today, 
an academic journal, "will end up harming the entire discipline in the long 

Arguing that her critics misunderstand the program and the military, Ms. 
McFate said other anthropologists were joining the teams. She said their 
goal was to help the military decrease conflict instead of provoking it, and 
she vehemently denied that the anthropologists collected intelligence for 
the military.

In eastern Afghanistan, Tracy said wanted to reduce the use of heavy-handed 
military operations focused solely on killing insurgents, which she said 
alienated the population and created more insurgents. "I can go back and 
enhance the military's understanding," she said, "so that we don't make the 
same mistakes we did in Iraq."

Along with offering advice to commanders, she said, the five-member team 
creates a database of local leaders and tribes, as well as social problems, 
economic issues and political disputes.

Clinics and Mediation

During the recent operation, as soldiers watched for suicide bombers, Tracy 
and Army medics held a free medical clinic. They said they hoped that 
providing medical care would show villagers that the Afghan government was 
improving their lives.
Civil affairs soldiers then tried to mediate between factions of the Zadran 
tribe about where to build a school. The Americans said they hoped that the 
school, which would serve children from both groups, might end a 70-year 
dispute between the groups over control of a mountain covered with lucrative 

Though they praised the new program, Afghan and Western officials said it 
remained to be seen whether the weak Afghan government could maintain the 
gains. "That's going to be the challenge, to fill the vacuum," said Mr. 
Gregg, the United Nations official. "There's a question mark over whether 
the government has the ability to take advantage of the gains."
Others also question whether the overstretched American military and its 
NATO allies can keep up the pace of operations.
American officers expressed optimism. Many of those who had served in both 
Afghanistan and Iraq said they had more hope for Afghanistan. One officer 
said that the Iraqis had the tools to stabilize their country, like a 
potentially strong economy, but that they lacked the will. He said Afghans 
had the will, but lacked the tools.

After six years of American promises, Afghans, too, appear to be waiting to 
see whether the Americans or the Taliban will win a protracted test of wills 
here. They said this summer was just one chapter in a potentially lengthy 

At a "super jirga" set up by Afghan and American commanders here, a member 
of the Afghan Parliament, Nader Khan Katawazai, laid out the challenge ahead 
to dozens of tribal elders.

"Operation Khyber was just for a few days," he said. "The Taliban will 
emerge again." 

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